Justine Riches sits in her den-turned-bedroom in her downtown Toronto apartment, perched above a 7-Eleven. Defeated, she hits record, “It’s really frustrating watching myself fail,” she says to the camera. The video is time stamped Dec. 3, 2016, 10:40 p.m. Her unmade bed peaks out in the background.
“I want to end the stigma behind it. But this just feels so shameful and like it’s my little secret,” she says as two tears stream down her cheeks. She pauses, a dim light burns in the background, “Why does this have to be my thing, of all things, binge eating? Really?”
Her voice filled with pain and conviction, she continues, “This illness has completely taken control of me and skewed my thoughts and made me value what I consume more than actually living.” Justine says a few more words, stops and reaches for a tissue, there’s a moment of silence, and she stops recording.
Riches suffers from OSFED, or Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder, an atypical eating disorder that blurs the lines of the normalized eating disorders. OSFED can have a combination of symptoms, ranging from anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, purging, and night eating syndrome. Since it is subjective to each sufferer, the symptoms can easily go unnoticed, allowing the disorder to continue without intervention from family and friends.
Justine’s battle with OSFED began in the spring of 2014. She had just finished her second year of the Radio and Television program at Ryerson when she started working a summer job as a corporate communications specialist for a local police station. “One woman I worked with was very into fitness and would go to the gym every day on our one hour lunch break. I decided to tag along. At first it was healthy, I was excited about going and loved seeing the results,” Justine said.
What started out as a healthy habit for Riches quickly turned into an obsession. “When school started again I kept going to the gym but I decided to really push myself to see more results. I started getting very specific about what I ate. I soon started restricting myself to only eating foods I thought were healthy. I was eating around 1300 calories a day, which is about half of what is recommended.”
Justine quickly began losing weight, standing at 5’9 and weighing 118 pounds. People began noticing the extreme changes in her physique. When friends and family began complimenting her or asking questions out of concern, Riches always played it off — crediting the gym for her rapid transformation.
After months of discipline, restraining her diet and an intense workout regime, the pressure Justine placed on herself became too much, and she began to binge eat. “As soon as I allowed myself to eat something that was normally off limits, I would lose control and stuff myself to the point where I couldn’t even walk. I had this mentality that if I had a ‘bad day’ I would make it a really bad day and eat everything in sight, and then starting the next day, I would restrict even more. I got into this cycle: binge, restrict, over exercise … and no one had a clue.”
By September 2016, Riches had been struggling with her eating disorder in silence for two years. Every day posed a new obstacle; from balancing work to her compulsion towards exercise. She describes trying to hide her eating habits from her roommates and scheduling interactions with friends only around meal time in order to keep her diet a secret.
As she entered her fourth year of the Radio and Television Arts program, she knew she would have to pitch an idea for practicum, the programs’ final thesis project. Around the same time, Justine began toying with the idea of recovery and opening up about her struggle with mental illness.
“I knew that if I wanted to get better, my eating disorder had to be something that I was okay with talking about,” said Riches. “This was around the time we were all pitching ideas for practicum and I thought maybe I could use this point of conflict in my life to give people insight on OSFED and the early stages of recovery.”
Riches decided to use the opportunity to tell her story. She pitched The Middle Ground, a personal documentary following her struggle with OSFED and the process behind recovery. The team set up an Indiegogo campaign, and has managed to raise $4,525 to go towards production, equipment, and festival submission costs.
“The Middle Ground has a dual meaning. On one hand, a lot of people with eating disorders have an all or nothing mindset — either, “Today’s a good day, I’m exercising and I’m eating healthy,” or, “The day has been shit and I’m going to eat unhealthy and binge,” said Justine.
“On the other hand, The Middle Ground represents my quest for moderation and finding a middle ground with food and exercise and getting rid of the all or nothing mindset.”
David Tucker is a professor and former chair of the RTA School of Media. He is currently Justine’s practicum advisor.
“I’m quite supportive of Justine, I think documentary is a great way to explore these kinds of topics,” said David. “When you take a stance on something from a first person perspective it makes the issue very real and I believe that can have tremendous relevance.”
As a documentarian himself, David believes a level of credibility is lended to filmmakers who use their personal stories as a muse.
“When you’re the subject but also the producer of a documentary it makes you take a step back and reflect on the experience from a different perspective. It can add credibility to the documentary when the creator is directly affected by the issue,” said David. “I really applaud Justine’s courage for tackling this issue.”
OSFED affects an estimated six per cent of the world’s population, and accounts for approximately 30 per cent of eating disorders people seek treatment for. OSFED’s invisibility in the media and education system make the mental illness largely overlooked.
Riches always knew her eating habits weren’t normal but she didn’t think she had a problem until the illness began to control her life.
“OSFED eventually took over my life to the point where I turned down so many events and cottage weekends with friends because I was so fixated on getting my diet back on track.”
At first, she had mixed feelings about being the director and star of a documentary that focuses on an eating disorder that had been a secret for so long. “I went from no one knowing about my eating disorder to it being something I wear on my sleeve.”
Instead of staying silent, Riches decided to use her practicum as an opportunity to show others the reality of OSFED, “I want to show people that recovery isn’t linear. It’s not pretty, you still fall into old patterns and you do have relapses and setbacks. I still have an unhealthy relationship with food. I still binge and still restrict, this is all just part of the process of coming to terms with my illness.”
It’s Wednesday night and Justine calls me on her way home from a production meeting with her team.“You’re going to think this is really cheesy,” she says. I can hear her holding back laughter on the other side of the phone.
“It’s something I’ve been saying since I started recovery. You know the phrase, ‘When life gives you lemons?’” She lets out a laugh that’s so contagious we’re soon both giggling and we’re not sure why.
“Well I say, when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade and you drink it. No matter how many fucking calories are in it.”
The Middle Ground is set to premiere March 18, 2017, at the Oakham Lounge in the Ryerson Student Centre. For more information visit www.themiddlegrounddoc.com
Check out some stills from the film below.